Chimène’s Dilemma: the Aesthetic & Political Formation of the French State in Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid
1> When Pierre Corneille transformed Guillén de Castro’s Las Mocedades del Cid, of 1621, into Le Cid, of 1636, he performed a balancing act: How to present a play which would be pleasing and provocative to the French audience, but at the same time suitable for the French stage of the 1630s? As a young playwright working at a time when the precepts of French classical theater were being debated and formulated, Corneille sought to integrate the essence of the Spanish play and the Aristotelian rules of tragedy: the unities of time, place and action, verisimilitude, and decorum. In keeping with the general spirit of these rules, Corneille condensed the time frame of the play from eighteen months to twenty-four hours, and he eliminated scenes of battle in distant locations and any swashbuckling action on stage. Similarly, Corneille removed the king’s son and the political conflicts of the Spanish court in order to maintain the unity of action, the central interest being the conflict between love and duty experienced by Rodrigue and Chimène. Decorum demanded that Corneille remove a wide cast of characters (including a shepherd, a leper, and the Moorish kings) whose lack of nobility made them unacceptable characters in a French tragicomedy, or tragedy; unity of action also dictated that many details be sacrificed, thus stripping the play of much of its authentic medieval and Spanish flavor. J.B. Segall captures the essence of Corneille’s refashioning of the Spanish play when he writes, in 1902, that: “[Rather than] knights of the eleventh century (...) Corneille’s personnages are nobles of the seventeenth century, men who dispatch their adversaries politely, with a smile and an apology on their lips” (66-67). Though the plays were separated by a mere fifteen years, significant changes occurred as Las Mocedades del Cid was reincarnated in the French cultural space.
2> Focusing on the character of Chimène in Le Cid reveals the tensions inherent in the notion of belonging to the French state in the early modern period. I insist that the play can only be understood properly by examining how Corneille transforms Ximena of the Spanish original (a contemporary play which was itself based on Spanish legend and was a product of its Spanish cultural milieu) into Chimène, thus creating a new play which both reflects and resists the dictates of its own cultural and political milieu. Chimène’s dilemma is precisely her inability to accept the new order into which she is to be reborn as the wife of the man who was once only Rodrigue but who becomes le Cid, the great and blessed conqueror sanctioned by the king. My reading demands that one consider Chimène in relation to how she is presented (that is, as a woman on the newly legitimated stage to a specific audience and in a tragicomedy) in order to understand how the literary work in question functions as a mediator of national identity.
Stage, Audience and the State
3> It is important to consider how Corneille perceived the genre in which he was writing in order to understand how this influenced the construction of the character of Chimène, who is both tragic and comic in the seventeenth century French connotations of those words. In writing Le Cid, Corneille chose the subgenre of tragicomedy. The origins of the subgenre are found in Antiquity. As Marvin Herrick writes in Tragicomedy: Its Origins and Development in Italy, France and England:
“The Amphytiron of Plautus gave the sixteenth century dramatists the convenient label of tragicocomoedia or ‘tragicomedy’ for plays outside the strict limits of pure tragedy or pure comedy, and it authorized the mingling of kings with clowns, of the dignified with the ridiculous.” (15)
4> The tragicomedy, which mixes the domestic and the glorious, is characterized, according to Antoine Adam, as an irregular play, with “péripéties multiples” (“multiple peripeteia”) which contains rapid and diverse action and romanesque plots and combats; tragicomedies had, as a rule, a happy ending, and they were written with the aim of pleasing an audience which was, for the most part, young and modern (Adam 425-426, 506). The tragicomedy, which was wildly popular in the early seventeenth century, continued to enjoy great success in the decade preceding the production of Le Cid (Herrick 191). In 1634, for example, only two of seventy-one plays performed at the Hôtel de Bourgogne were tragedies (Adam 451). The tragicomedy found itself undergoing modification as classical tragedies gained in popularity. Le Cid itself uniquely blends the fast action of tragicomedy with the depth of character analysis found in tragedies, producing a play which is exciting, romantic, and yet profound in its exploration of character motivation and the conflict of wills (Adam 510). This unique blend is reflective of the attitude of the young Corneille, who preferred pleasing an audience to any strict adherence to aesthetic rules. Marie-Odile Sweetser, for example, quotes Corneille responding to his adversaries in 1639:
« Celui de la poésie dramatique est de plaire, et les règles qu’elle nous prescrit ne sont que des adresses pour en faciliter les moyens du poète, et non pas des raisons qui puissent persuader aux spectateurs qu’une chose soit agréable quand elle leur déplaît. »
“The interest of dramatic poetry is to please, and the rules that it prescribes to us are no more than artful techniques to facilitate the poet’s powers of expression, and not reasons which can persuade the spectators that something is pleasant when it displeases them.” (69)
5> Adam, Herrick and other critics indicate that the tragicomedy reached its culminating point in Le Cid, and that after 1637, the classical rules of tragedy clearly dominated in France. It seems in fact that Le Cid represents a subgenre all its own, a comedy unlike any which had preceded it and a tragedy unlike any which followed it. The subgenre of tragicomedy, born of the popular taste for dramatic action in a society full of drama and change, would find itself reborn with the arrival of Rodrigue and, especially, Chimène.
6> Certainly, Corneille’s audience was interested in the romantic and daring exploits of Rodrigue featured in tragicomedy. “Jamais pièce de théâtre n’eut un si grand success” (“Never did a play have so much success”), wrote Corneille’s nephew Fontenelle in 1702 (O.C. 22). In 1637, when Le Cid was first performed—three times at the court, twice at Richelieu’s theater and also at the Théatre du Marais (Guerdan 46)—audiences were swept up in the politics and passion of the play. They were attracted to a particularly Spanish aspect of these exploits featured in Spanish plays of the time, the code of honor. Corneille’s interest in Las Mocedades del Cid reflects not an interest in the form of the play but rather a fascination—which his audience shared—for Spanish bravado and heroism, dating back to the popularity of the French translation of Amadis de Gaule in the sixteenth century (Forsyth 132,135). The fantastic and gallant Spanish plays were popular with a French noble class who, although they had their reservations about the Spanish, admired the sense of honor the Spanish paraded before the French (Forsyth 133). Corneille, it would seem, after mocking this Spanish bravado in the character of Matamore in L’Illusion comique, was ready, in the following year, to display this sense of honor in a hero who, as Segall’s earlier quotation suggests, was nevertheless transformed from a Spanish knight of the Middle Ages into a noble Frenchman of the seventeenth century.
7> Yet Corneille was also ready to mediate the appreciation of this hero of state through a daring heroine with whom the French audience would relate. In her book, If There are No More Heroes, There are Heroines, Josephine A. Schmidt emphasizes that it was in the 1630s when women in Paris first began having access to theater performances (14). While Corneille did not frequent the salons of the précieux (Stegman 161-65), he was certainly influenced by the feminist ideals of these society women inasmuch as they were spectators of his plays. As Schmidt notes, Corneille, in his Examen from 1660 , speaks of observing, from behind the curtain, the audiences at the first representations of the play and witnessing their reaction when Rodrigue visits Chimène in her private chamber the night after murdering her father: “Alors que ce malheureux amant se présentait devant elle, il s’élevait un certain frémissement dans l’assemblée” (“When this unfortunate lover presented himself before her, a kind of shiver passed through the audience”) (O.C. 219). ). Serge Doubrovsky, in his exhaustive study, relates that the shocking nature of this scene to the first audiences was indeed at the center of the quarrel that broke out over this play (107), and Schmidt argues that the Academy’s criticism of Chimène reveals the startling newness of Corneille’s representation of women (22).
8> Alongside the enthralled audience members there were also Corneille’s future judges—most notably Richelieu and various members of the newly formed Académie Française such as Chapelain and Scudéry—who in the end would judge Corneille as having insufficient aesthetic and moral standards, the two being inextricably linked in their view (Les Sentimens). Criticism on this front focused largely, though certainly not exclusively on the character of Chimène. In the writings of Scudéry, for example, we learn that although the Academy found the above-mentioned scene to be “le principal agrément de la pièce” (“the main attraction of the play”), the scene offended the rules of theater and was therefore not appropriate for the Parisian stage (Les Sentimens). The debate surrounding Le Cid, which Richelieu both launched and ended, served to define the French Classical aesthetic, the development of which must be closely linked to the construction of the newly emerging political state. According to Walter Cohen, in Drama of a Nation, “Richelieu’s direct intervention (…) linked the stage socially to the court and nobility, and aesthetically to the neoclassical rules” (107). Richelieu’s political mission, of course, included the glorification of French language and culture, which he viewed as an indispensable part of the political project (Adam 213-214). The reason of state makes its historical entry in France, and the cultural component of this goal is elaborated by the Académie Française under Richelieu’s coercive guidance: “De tirer du nombre des langues barbares cette langue que nous parlons, et que tous nos voisins parleroient bientost si nos conquestes continuoient encore comme elles avoient commencé” (“To derive from the numerous barbaric languages this language that we speak, and that all of our neighbors would soon speak if our conquests were to continue as they had started”) (cited by Adam, 227, all translations are my own). The theater, as it was established and sponsored by Richelieu, was the material circumstance which allowed the character of Chimène and the concept of belonging to this state to be explored in a public space, and Richelieu certainly hoped that France would inherit Spain’s hegemonic position as the state from which universal values would emanate. Because the rise of theater’s fortunes corresponded to the rapid ascension of the monarchy during Richelieu’s period of governance, however, the character of Chimène turned out to be somewhat problematic, and, as Cohen argues, a truly popular theater was excluded in seventeenth century France, in favor of a classical theater in which tragedy represented the pinnacle of artistic production (106-107).
Chimène and Rodrigue
9> The most dramatic difference between the two plays, as suggested above, concerns the respective roles of Rodrigue and Chimène. In Corneille’s play, attention turns away from Rodrigue, the national hero, in order to focus on Chimène and her ambivalent relationship to the king’s state. Physical action takes a secondary role to the exploration of a character’s motivation, and the chivalric ideal of the earlier play is refashioned in light of the feminist perspective of preciosity. Corneille decidedly shifts the focus of the play from Rodrigue to Chimène. Whereas de Castro’s play begins with the king crowning Rodrigo as knight (a ceremony observed by, among others, Ximena and the Infante), Corneille’s play opens with an anguished Chimène, in her private chamber, begging her servant Elvire to tell her the news: Will Chimène’s father accept Rodrigue as her future husband? One notices immediately the new focus on woman, love and the exploration of private sentiments, rather than on knight, king and public ceremony. In de Castro’s play, Ximena has only a few lines in the first scenes; she speaks in order to admire Rodrigo’s beauty. In Corneille’s play, the first two scenes are devoted entirely to the private sentiments of Chimène and the Infante respectively.
10> Because the king’s daughter, the Infante, also loves Rodrigue, a knight below her rank, she serves as Chimène’s character foil, and her presence at the opening of the play inevitably reinforces the exploration of Chimène’s feelings. The Infante’s dilemma, revealed quickly in Act 1, Scene 2 foreshadows the dilemma Chimène will face: her private passion for Rodrigue is in conflict with her political duties, in this case her responsibilities as a princess (1.2.91-92). Implicitly, the Infante cannot marry and produce children with Rodrigue because he is below her rank as daughter of royalty. By placing the passions of Chimène and the Infante in such close proximity at the very outset of the play, Corneille places the emphasis of the play squarely upon the conflict two females experience between love and honor; only later will Rodrigo ruminate upon the same question—first when his father proposes he duel the father of Chimène to regain the family’s honor, and secondly when he visits Chimène at her private residence the night of his victory over her father.
11> While the Infante sends a page to bring Chimène to her at the end of the first scene, the spectator must wait until Act 3, Scene 3 to witness the meeting which is to take place between Chimène and the Infante. In the meantime, Don Diègue is slapped, Rodrigue decides that he must avenge this insult, and the Count voices his resolve to disobey the king. In the Spanish version, the actual confrontation between Rodrigue and Chimène’s father occurs onstage; Ximena, the Infante and Don Diègue are part of the action; and Rodrigo is dramatically chased by the Count’s men until he is saved by the Infante’s order. In the French play, however, after a brief scene in which Rodrigo and the Count declare their intentions—a scene lacking in spectacle but certainly not in intensity—attention immediately turns back to Chimène and the Infante and their reception of the news; the duel has occurred offstage. The French play returns consistently to focus upon Chimène’s dilemma, and even though the Académie Française criticized the attention given to the Infante’s dilemma (seen as distracting from the unity of action), the Infante’s role as character foil actually intensifies Chimène’s dilemma.
12> Rodrigue’s actions are in fact filtered through their reception by Chimène, and Rodrigue’s most private feelings are shared in conversations with the heroine. In the Spanish play, as Rodrigo departs to fight the Moors, he receives the blessing of the princess, and the audience witnesses, through the viewpoint of a shepherd, his valor in war. In Corneille’s version, however, Rodrigue simply disappears, and the play cuts immediately to Chimène receiving the news: “N’est-ce point un faux bruit?” (“Is this not a false rumor?”) (4.1.1101) and shortly after: “Mais n’est-il point blessé?” (“But is he not hurt?”) (4.1.1123). In Act 5 as well, the drama in the French play focuses on Chimène: She is the principal character in four of the first five scenes, while the Infante is featured in the other; after this, the action moves to the court and to the final resolution of the play. The play’s rhythm is swift, and Chimène’s dilemma is the key: it is played at the beginning, throughout, and resonates strongly at the end of the final act. Claude Abraham (57) and Robert J. Nelson (71), among others, have noted (citing nineteenth century critic Emile Faguet, who proposed to rename the play Chimène) that Rodrigo’s decision to avenge his father occurs at the end of Act I, and that it is Chimène’s struggle which constitutes the central focus of the play. The attitudes of Chimène (and of her character foil, the Infante) thus provide the framework, the context in which the events of the play are situated.
13> The strong presence of Chimène on the newly legitimated French stage, in a political tragedy, indicates that woman has arrived in the public sphere, and her presence there creates a new problematic, as the famous verses of Boileau attest:
« En vain contre le Cid un ministre se ligue:
Tout Paris pour Chimène a les yeux de Rodrigue.
L’Académie en corps a beau le censurer :
Le public révolté s’obstine à l’admirer. »
“In vain a Minister unites against le Cid :
All of Paris for Chimène has the eyes of Rodrigue.
The united Academy, try as it might to restrict:
The public in revolt stubbornly loves it.” (quoted in Brody 142)
14> The Paris audience—and not only the women—would become absorbed in this heroine’s tragic dilemma (acted out on the public space of the stage) and would, perhaps the first time, consider the private dimension of themselves in relation to the state in a new way.
Chimène and the Early Modern Secular State
15> The Chimène who speaks on the French stage of 1637 cannot be properly understood without situating her, first in terms of the Spanish Ximena’s place in the Spanish aesthetic/state, and secondly, in terms of her own place in a newly emerging French secular state in its real and staged versions. In order to understand how Chimène resists the political discourse of the French state, we must first look at the construction of the French state in Le Cid and how it differs from that of the Spanish play. De Castro’s play follows Rodrigo in his transformation from young, untested nobleman into El Cid, master of five Moorish kings and possessor of the king’s esteem and Ximena’s heart. In his final glory, El Cid performs an act of Christian charity and is blessed by a leper who reveals himself as Saint Lazarus and declares that El Cid will be thenceforth an invincible conqueror. Further, the duel which leads to the conclusion of the Spanish play, between El Cid and a giant from neighboring Aragon, echoes the Biblical story of David and Goliath. According to William E. Wilson, Las Mocedades del Cid is “a nativity scene,” representing the birth of a national hero in Spain (136). This national hero exemplifies de Castro’s adherence to the three tenets of the Golden Age Spanish theater: Catholicism, king, and honor.
16> Religious scenes glorifying Rodrigue as the ideal Christian knight are eliminated in the French play, and the religious aspect is so secondary as to be nonexistent; even though the religious paradigm is not challenged as a structuring political principle, it is downplayed, undermined and finally replaced by the focus on Chimène and her private passions. The movement away from religious principles coincides with Richelieu’s political mission, for it was important that Richelieu downplay purely religious passions in order to consolidate the secular state. Liah Greenfeld’s book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, and Etienne Thuau’s book, Raison d’état et pensée politique à l’époque de Richelieu, offer insight into the development of the monarchy in early seventeenth century France, during which time Richelieu grafted the idea of state-as-God upon the already existing principle of king-as-God. Belonging to the state would thus begin to rival a purely religious conception of humanity amongst those participating in the political construction of the state in France. (The absolutely marginalized role of the Third Estate should be kept in mind throughout this entire analysis.) At this time, a series of developments contributed to the establishment of the monarchical, secular state as a structuring principle which frames individual identities. First, upon the principle of the Divine Right of Kings, the sovereignty of the French “most Christian” king had been assured; the king was perceived as appointed directly by God, and also independent from both the Pope and the Spanish “most Catholic” king. God’s approval overlapped with the Salic Law, in essence blessing a man-made constitution concerning the succession of kings—with its origins rooted in the early Middle Ages—with sacred power. In Nations Before Nationalism, John A. Armstrong reveals that as far back as the thirteenth century, papal authority recognized the Franks as a people chosen by God:
“At the end of the thirteenth century, Pope Boniface VIII sanctioned this concept [“that the Franks (or the French) were a chosen people because their kingdom was a terrestrial parallel of the Kingdom of Heaven”] in proclaiming that ‘like the people of Israel…the kingdom of France [is] a peculiar people chosen by the Lord to carry out the orders of Heaven’.” (158)
17> In the early seventeenth century, Richelieu’s anti-Spanish propaganda promoted skepticism as to how the Spanish state used Catholicism to further its political ends, planting ideas in the minds of the populace which would not only strengthen the absolute authority of the sacred French king, but privilege national belonging over religious belonging as a structuring principle in people’s lives (Thuau 204). At the same time, Richelieu, as the minister of a king who allowed him free reign, used the absolute authority of the king to build the French state, thus conflating religion and the state. The state began to receive the respect due to the king and also sought to assume Spain’s hegemonic position in Europe.
18> The respective kings in the Spanish and French versions of this play clearly illustrate these changes. Interestingly, in Corneille’s play, the secularized king emerges as more powerful than the Most Catholic Spanish king. The Spanish king, who is surrounded by the trappings of religion, suffers the Count’s affront in his palace, and seems constantly to be yelling “Enough!” to disobedient vassals. The Spanish king depends more on his council, and seems not to know best how to rule without their advice, as God’s representative on earth certainly should. Further, his kingdom is in peril, not only from the Moors but from within. The king’s oldest son, whose arrogance threatens the stability of the royal family, places in question the future of the Spanish kingdom. The whole rationale for the selection of Don Diego as tutor to the prince is that the king sees fit to teach to his son the moderation which the older Don Diego, rather than the hot-headed count, Chimène’s father, can provide the young man. This character, and this rationale, are absent in Le Cid. The French king, though less surrounded by religious trappings, seems somehow eternal: he does not witness such disobedience in his palace, does not depend upon his advisors to such an extent, and the succession of the state is not threatened. In the French play, the king is both stronger and more secular. It is this strong, secular king who functions as the anchor of the new national identity which Richelieu is trying to formulate, and it is this strong, secular king in the play whose patience will be tried by an unruly and emotive young woman, Chimène.
19> So how does Chimène function within this newly emerging construct of the state? With the murder of her father, she has lost her bearings, her safety net, the point of reference which stabilizes her identity. She has lost, in fact, the world into which she was born, especially since in the universe of Le Cid children seem to be born of fathers alone and mothers are inexistent. When she pleads for justice before the king, he promises to be a replacement father to her, but his hesitancy to grant her immediate justice, as she says, only increases her sorrow. When she is escorted back from the king’s residence to her private residence, she does not know to whom she belongs. She has been displaced from her father’s protection, estranged from Rodrigue, and is skeptical that she can pretend to belong to her new father, the king. What she finds in her apartment—her father’s murderer brandishing a sword still stained with the blood of her father—shocks her to the extent that she doubts whether this is not an apparition before her eyes rather than a real person.
20> Chimène is, throughout, a young woman in love, and when her father’s death thrusts her out of the protection of the family and feudal order, she finds herself unable to understand to whom she belongs. Doubrovsky, in his famous analysis of the moment of Chimène’s perdition in the eyes of the Academy, indicates that the private encounter of Act 3, Scene 4 is the scene which establishes Chimène as a weakened creature who becomes the slave of Rodrigue, and yet a close analysis of the scene proves that the opposite is true. In beginning his commentaries of this scene, Doubrovsky praises Octave Nadal’s appreciation that the scene is less a romantic duo à la Romeo and Juliette and more a duel of lovers (108). While it is crucial to keep in mind this aspect of the encounter, I find that Chimène wins this duel, and that, rather than using her success to seek any mastery over Rodrigue, she unites them as lovers who, together, will resist the code of honor which is the reason of state and of the feudal system which preceded it.
21> Rather than implying Rodrigue’s will to triumph over Chimène, his visit might first suggest his inability to stay away from her in a time of crisis, and overtly, he puts himself entirely at her disposition. Most importantly, we have two lovers sharing a state of shock, both estranged from their fathers and their king. Chimène is consumed by the black obscurity of the night and seeks solace there; Rodrigue is unwilling to wait for any other process to take its course, and he must present himself to Chimène. Again, there is a wide array of possible interpretations of Rodrigue’s behavior, and how an actor were to animate the lines could sway an analysis toward or away from Doubrovsky’s idea that Rodrigue, by brandishing the sword, dominates Chimène and reduces her to the status of slave. A purely textual reading leads in the other direction.
22> At this point in the play, both lovers are outlaws of the state: Chimène does not trust the king’s justice, and Rodrigue, the killer of Chimène’s father, has defended his own “race,” his own blood, and refused to wait for the king’s justice in this matter. In this surprising nocturnal scene between outlaws, two heroes (who are perfectly Aristotelian in the sense that we sympathize with them as they try to resolve a seemingly unsolvable predicament) do not know how to respond to the death of the old orders, represented by the fathers, and are, as we have seen, alienated from the king. Rodrigue and Chimène thus represent a new order in search of itself. Although Corneille felt constrained in trying to respect the unity of time and pack all the events of the play into twenty-four hours, this actually works in his favor as the spectator feels the full impact of Chimène and Rodrigue’s confusion. As witnessed in Boileau’s famous verses, both Rodrigue and the audience are focused upon Chimène and her dilemma; we wait to see if she can use the bloody sword Rodrigue offers her to kill her lover, the murderer of her father.
23> As the scene unfolds, we see that Chimène moves from a state of shock to one of relative steadiness, while Rodrigue remains disoriented. At first, Chimène tells Rodrigue that she cannot take his life, because this would merely be seen as a sacrifice on his part and increase his own glory rather than that of her and her family. “Rigoureux point d’honneur,” (“Strict point of honor”) he responds famously (3.4.957). Finally, when Chimène admits that she cannot hate Rodrigue, it is Rodrigue who is afraid of “bruits,” of rumors which would destroy her reputation (3.4.964). Chimène folds her hand in admitting that her love for Rodrigue is more powerful than her sense of duty to her father, yet this avowal stabilizes Rodrigue and keeps alive the idea of their love which has inspired him from the beginning. The continued expression of her duty to her father, expressed here in a private setting, cannot entirely be discounted, for she distances herself from Rodrigue as surely as she speaks of her love for him. In the very next scene with his father, Rodrigue will echo Chimène when he tells his father that love for a woman is as important as duty to one’s honor, which derives from, as I have suggested, duty to the race, or “nation,” into which one is born. Race and nation, in this seventeenth century context, overlap; one’s “générosité,” one’s willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater glory of the race of one’s birth is the ultimate virtue. For Chimène and Rodgrigue, however, confusion reigns, as they temporarily do not know to what race, or nation, they belong.
24> Though Chimène does not kill him, Rodrigue does not seek to subjugate her; rather, he pleads with her to save her reputation (3.4.968). It is Chimène who will devise the strategy to love privately and hate publicly, who will tell Rodrigue to hide in the shadows on his way out (3.4.975). On a public stage, then, Chimène declares, at least momentarily, the primacy of her private sentiments over the glory of the race/nation. By admitting momentarily that she loves Rodrigue more than her own honor, Chimène has broken the taboo against this very notion (in the public space of the theater); Rodrigue is thrown off balance by this avowal on her part of a sentiment he shares, that for each lover, the approval of the other lover is ultimately more important than the honor of the family or –in the emerging order—of the state. “Que je meure!” (“May I die!”) Rodrigue exclaims (3.4.978), not just bluffing in an attempt to dominate Chimène but wanting to die at her hands out of love for her. Rodrigue has already avenged his family’s / his race’s honor by winning the duel with Chimène’s father. However, it must be remembered that, until the next scene in which Rodrigue’s father introduces the idea of the battle against the Moors, which will redeem him as a member of the king’s state, here he is still a man without a future in the eyes of the state.
25> Chimène has shown Rodrigue a way out of his dilemma by suggesting that they maintain a simultaneous closeness and distance, a perfect ambivalence to one another. In doing so, she reaches such an ultimate state of exhaustion that she merely directs Rodrigue twice, saying “Va-t-en.” (“Go.”) At first, he does not understand her plan –“à quoi te résous-tu?” (“What have you decided?”) (3.4.980)—but when he understands, he exclaims: “O miracle d’amour!” (“Oh miracle of love!”) (3.4.984). This feeling of love is not specifically coded in the text as a weak female sentiment, though that is how Corneille speaks of it in his later critical writings. Chimène and Rodrigue have shared this passion prior to the beginning of the play in the innocence of youth. It is Chimène, however, because of the dilemma in which she is placed, who realizes the distinct separation of the public and private worlds, who breaks a taboo by offending the cherished code of honor. As a reading of the seventeenth century Sentimens de l’Académie Françoise sur la tragi-comédie du Cid shows, Chimène-the-transgressor is beloved by the Parisian audiences, and scorned by official critics, precisely because of her romantic avowal.
Chimène and Early Modern National Belonging
26> Chimène, because of her position as a woman in a male-dominated state, can only experience recognition by the state through her attachment to Rodrigue, and she has and will experience this attachment to him as a nobleman who serves his family and, eventually, his state well. She recognizes that she is inextricably bound to Rodrigue’s honor, to his ability to commit “generous” acts in the name of the public good. Yet she emerges from the private chamber scene victorious because it is she who has said to Rodrigue (and to the spectators) that the reason of love can triumph over the reason of state (duty to the collective identity). This is the principle, now stated, which will guide Rodrigue in his actions of generosity regarding the state. Chimène, a powerless national subject, finds legitimacy and dignity in the threatening notion that romantic love might be more important than honor, and she teaches this new ethic to Rodrigue. Chimène’s love for Rodrigue thus does not represent a weakness, and her hatred of him does not merely represent a regressive tendency (respect for the sovereign rights of her father). Rather, she is a woman whose strength is tested by her tragic circumstances, and who develops her own unique solution to the problem at hand, her crisis of national identity. In loving Rodrigue, she denies the authority of politics to determine her passions.
27> When Rodrigue goes out to conquer Moors one scene after his private encounter with Chimène, in large measure the audience is still back in the night with the exhausted Chimène, sharing her secret, her pained realization that, despite the strong sense of duty she feels to her father, it is only by distancing herself from political discourse that she will be able to regain her dignity. Rodrigue goes off, for a private love cannot exist without its attachment to the community/nation at large: While Rodrigue will soon be glorified publicly as the hero of state, Corneille is privately glorifying Chimène, whose tragic ambivalence to the new state remains compelling. Although Rodrigue charges off to battle in hopes of making his way out of this dark night, the play continues to focus not upon Rodrigue’s exploits nor his Christian glory but rather his private sentiments—his monologue which concludes the first act, his refusal to accept wholeheartedly his father’s system of values, and in particular his conversations with Chimène.
28> To enter into an exploration of Chimène’s ultimate motivations is to enter into Corneille’s well-constructed labyrinth, and to try to determine one ultimate motivating factor in her actions is to try to resolve what centuries of criticism have not been able to accomplish. That the debate over Chimène’s character continues to the present day testifies to Corneille’s success in capturing the contradictions inherent in both love and national belonging, the intertwining of which represent one of the key aspects of the modern condition. Schmidt cites Corneille’s Discours du Poème Dramatique in order to highlight the contradiction which is at the heart of this matter:
« Sa dignité [la dignité de la pièce] demande quelque grand intérêt d’État, ou quelque passion plus noble et plus mâle que l’amour, telles que sont l’ambition ou la vengeance (...) Il est à propos d’y mêler l’amour, parce qu’il a toujours beaucoup d’agrément, et peut servir de fondement à ces intérêts, et à ces autres passions dont je parle. »
“Its dignity [the dignity of the play] demands some great interest of the state, or some passion more noble and more male than that of love, such as ambition or vengeance (…) It is fitting to mix love into it, because it has a lot of charm, and can serve as a foundation for these interests, and for these other passions of which I speak.” (113)
29> The similarity of this statement with the main thrust of Foundational Fictions, Doris Sommer’s important study of love stories which serve as national allegories, is clear: While the interests of state are founded in a private love story, this private love story must also by necessity be connected to the destiny of the state.
30> Rodrigue, after admonishing his father that the reason of love is as important as the reason of state, disappears offstage and comes back with the astounding news that he has vanquished a handful of Moorish kings in the space of a few hours. He is now no longer simply Rodrigue; his new national identity becomes his identity, he is the hero of the strong, secularized French king (and, implicitly, of Richelieu’s state, which does battle with the real-life religious Spanish king represented in the Spanish play). His dilemma is essentially solved, and it is only up to Chimène to join the nation and accept his love. She cannot do so whole-heartedly.
31> Chimène carries a not entirely revealed contradiction inside herself. It is the very nature of her predicament which renders the tragedy so great. My reading of the final scenes of public humiliation leaves little room for the comic element others have read in these scenes. Chimène quite simply cannot, in the end, submit her erotic/romantic passions to the interest of the state. To the Infante, she says of Rodrigue:
« Quoiqu’un peuple l’adore et qu’un roi le caresse,
Qu’il soit environné des plus vaillants guerriers,
J’irai sous mes cyprès accabler ses lauriers. »
“Although a people adore him and a king caresses him, / Although he might be surrounded by the most valiant warriors, / I will go underneath my cypress trees to crush his laurels.” (4.2.1194-96)
32> She concludes this speech by saying definitively that even if the king opposes her, “Je ne puis me taire” (“I cannot be quiet”) (4.2.1205).
33> That it is impossible to make definitive conclusions concerning Chimène’s dilemma is a matter of record. To give one example, toward the end of the play, when Chimène begs Rodrigue not to sacrifice himself in the duel with Don Sanche, we can attribute equally plausible motives for this act: 1) Chimène loves Rodrigue altruistically, and does not want him to sacrifice his honor by losing a battle; 2) Chimène is fulfilling her duty to her father; if Rodrigue sacrifices himself, it will dishonor her father; 3) Chimène is driven by love, but selfishly, since Rodrigue’s sacrifice would make him appear more glorious than her; 4) Chimène is fulfilling her duty to her father by not allowing her father’s slayer to sacrifice himself gloriously, but only because she loves Rodrigue and wants to prove herself worthy of him by continuing to do her duty. The cleverly symmetrical structure of the play permits an endless debate concerning these equally plausible motives. And yet does not the evidence available in Les Sentimens de l’Académie Françoise sur la tragi-comédie du Cid and in later discussions of La Querelle du Cid such as Doubrovsky’s and Schmidt’s testify that it was primarily the erotically charged Act 4, Scene 3 which kept audiences enraptured, spellbound? And isn’t this erotic attraction/repulsion obviated and intensified in the last scene of the play, when Chimène says she is shocked that the king would have her sleep in the same bed with the murderer of her father while the blood was still fresh on his sword?
34> Sommer suggests, in her introduction, that “eroticism and patriotism pull each other along” (47). She states as well that it is precisely the existing state’s (in Chimène’s case, her “race’s”) prohibition of romantic transgressions which charges them with such intensity:
“Erotic interest in these novels owes its intensity to the very prohibitions against the lovers’ union across racial or regional lines. And political conciliations, or deals, are transparently urgent because the lovers ‘naturally’ desire the kind of state that would unite them.” (47)
35> The play, in this sense, would seem to use erotic/romantic passion in the interest of the state, were it not for Chimène’s refusal to marry Rodrigue. When Chimène breaks the prohibition against loving Rodrigue, which is dictated by her family’s honor, this erotically charged scene serves both to resist the capacity of politics/the state to encroach upon her private passions and also as a means of revealing her as one whose love for Rodrigue is stronger than her love of honor. The state, for its part, desires the “socially productive love” (Sommer 6) which Chimène has to offer; the secularized king wants and needs to bless this union.
36> We see in the early modern period the seeds that will sprout in the nineteenth century with the elaboration of national identities: As Sommer argues, individual lovers need and desire the attachment to the nation and its destiny in order to give their love meaning, and the state desires lovers because they give concrete affective power to what would otherwise be an abstract, empty notion. Yet, as Chimène demonstrates, the state cannot “possess” the lovers.
37> The final confrontation between the Infante and Chimène is important because it reveals Chimène’s intense awareness of the difference between private and public discourse. Chimène has presumably spent the night meditating upon her dilemma. Just prior to the encounter, she is alone, surrounded by objects of her deceased father, speaking to them, asking them to revive for her the commitment to honor which seems to be slipping from her grasp: “Et lorsque mon amour aura trop de pouvoir / Parlez à mon esprit de mon triste devoir” (“And when my love becomes too powerful / Tell to my heart my melancholy duty”) (4.1.1139-1140). When she meets the Infante, however, Chimène displays a more resolved temperament. She is aware, first of all, that this is a public, and not a private conversation, as the Infante would pretend. The Infante, although she does leave the choice to Chimène, turns the reason of state to her own advantage, saying that Chimène should denounce loving Rodrigue, first since he is now a hero of state and secondly because this will be the most effective way to punish him for his crime against her father and her honor. Chimène, however, announces that she will continue both to love and pursue the death of Rodrigue. Both privately and publicly, she is still in the throes of her dilemma, yet it is evident from the juxtaposition of the two conversations (with the household objects and with the Infante) that in public, her resolve to kill Rodrigue is decidedly stronger. What is fascinating about all this is that Chimène’s most private conversations –the conversations of this unique product of a tragicomedy which creates a tragic heroine who is noble yet “irregular” in her thoughts and deeds—are experienced as such by an audience gathered collectively in a public space.
38> In examining Chimène’s dilemma, we thus witness the early modern version of this “dialectic between love and the state” (Sommer 46). The true question at the end of the play is complicated by the modified versions of the ending. In the original Spanish play, Ximena, in the end, happily casts off the unwelcome obligation of duty, and the lovers exclaim joyfully that they will marry one another. Ximena admits clearly in the end that her public duty has been nothing but a burden and that she will marry Rodrigo because heaven, in the form of a duel and the king’s declaration, has ordained it (3. 2996). In the end, it is not a question of her love for Rodrigue; rather, her acceptance of him makes her but an extension of and reinforcement of the medieval chivalric ideal.
39> A comparison of the ending of de Castro’s play with the ending of Corneille’s play can only be accomplished by tracing the evolution of the ending as it was modified by Corneille over the years; such an examination (undertaken by, among others, Couton, who references the relevant editions) reveals the evolution of the playwright’s aesthetic principles. The attitude of Corneille—himself an outsider of non-noble birth (Le Gall 129) who experienced an ambivalent relationship with the emerging state and would suffer official condemnation of Le Cid—changed as he grew older and more in tune with the rules of French classical theater. Georges Couton has written: “Corneille a conçu autrement sa pièce vingt ans plus tard: sa Chimène lui a fait peur” (“Twenty years later, Corneille saw his play in a different light: his Chimène scared him”) (111). Despite the ambiguity of the original ending, the Corneille of 1636 expresses his belief that the marriage occurs at the end of the play, and the Corneille of 1648 even supports this belief with the original Spanish ballads from which de Castro derived his play (while still defending Chimène’s nobleness of spirit against her critics). The Corneille of 1660, however, changes two lines in the final speech of Chimène in order to support the possibility that the marriage does not occur (Couton 91-111). Couton judiciously concludes that the play is definitively open-ended. Corneille himself, in his Examen of 1660, says that while the marriage ending suited the French society of 1636, the non-marriage ending better suited the French society of 1660, which was more austere and in which the rules of classical theater were more firmly entrenched (O.C. 220). The Corneille of 1660 would not have permitted Rodrigue to waver as much as he does in his famous soliloquy; also, he would not have created the Chimène whom we know from 1637. Over the course of his career, Corneille continued to have a lively interest in this one heroine, who played such a key role at a pivotal moment in his career, which was in fact a pivotal moment for the French state as well.
40> Highlighting the way in which Corneille transformed de Castro’s Ximena to suit his own sensibilities and those of his audience, we see how Corneille created a radically new Chimène, who is defiant and whose tragic dilemma is felt by—if not understood by—those around her. In studying critics’ opinions of Chimène’s final speech in the play (Segall 87; Nelson 79; Knight 21; Couprie 79; Abraham 82, to name just a very selected sample from the past century), one must wonder first why such intense critical attention has been paid to the ending of this single play and secondly why critics to this day have not been able to decide the issue; recent criticism has even brought in a whole new array of critical tools such as psychoanalysis and feminist theory (see especially Carlin, Women Reading Corneille: Feminist Psychocriticisms of Le Cid). Le Cid’s popularity has not waned, having been presented 1,457 times by the Comédie Française between 1680 and 1964, representing an average of five times per year. Romantic devotion and devotion to the state are certainly intertwined in the modern condition, and like Chimène, the modern subject finds his or her life in some way caught up in a perfect, lingering tension between the two forces. In the end of the play, the king passes judgment upon this strong female presence, Chimène, just as afterward agents of the prime minister will pass judgment upon the strong artistic presence of her creator, Pierre Corneille. But at least her voice is heard, an early modern voice which over the centuries has permitted audiences and artists to think about and feel their own necessary and problematic attachment to the state or nation in which they live.
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Tim Gerhard is an Assistant Professor of French and Spanish at SUNY Cortland. He has published articles relating to transnational identity in France at various historical moments. Three of his articles on this theme are: “Unsettling Experiences: Transnational Dialogues of Necessity in Journal, Nationalité: immigré(e) and Paletitas de Guayaba,” published in Wagadu: A journal of transnational women’s and gender studies, Volume 2, Summer 2005 (available online); “At the Edge of the Abyss: A Case for Teaching Race and National Identity in Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal” in EAPSU Online: A Journal of Critical and Creative Work, Volume 5, Fall 2008 and “Wild Dreams of a New Beginning: The Ethnographic Surrealism of Octavio Paz and Benjamin Péret.” (forthcoming In Brújula, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 2009).
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture, http://appositions.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges